- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 8, 2000

A disabled Metro subway train crowded with rush-hour passengers rolled perilously close to disaster when mechanics tried to hook the train to another one to push it into a station, subway workers said.
The disabled six-car train rolled about 50 yards before it was stopped short of a steep incline that would have sent it hurtling toward the Dupont Circle Metro station hundreds of feet below the surface of the ground, and perhaps beyond.
When the brakes were released from the disabled train so it could be moved down the tracks, subway workers said, it began rolling out of control on the steep grade toward Dupont Circle.
"It rolled about 150 feet before someone put the brakes on," said a Metro employee familiar with the incident. "They cut out the brakes. You are not supposed to cut out anything until coupling [of the two trains] is made.
"If you go down there wide open, you won't stop until you get to Rhode Island [Metrorail Station]," the worker said. "That's a high-speed area in there. If that car had derailed, it would have killed every passenger."
Metro workers familiar with the runaway train said the operator of the recovery train was suspended pending an investigation.
The report of the incident, which occurred two weeks ago, follows the report of another perilous incident in which a train crowded with commuters was sent into a burning tunnel.
"The train was full of people when it started to roll," says a Metro employee familiar with the latest reported incident. "If they had not got it stopped, it would have kept on going."
Information about the disabled train emerged when smoke in a Red Line tunnel forced the closure of the Friendship Heights, Bethesda and Tenleytown-American University stations for about two hours.
The smoke report provided a test for the second consecutive day of a newly revamped Metro policy that now prohibits trains from going into hazardous situations. The old policy allowed train operators to drive toward fires and to be used in fire crews.
A fire Tuesday on the Red Line near the White Flint station required Metro officials to stop a train, call the fire department and put passengers onto buses.
Metro spokeswoman Cheryl Johnson said no fire was found and no one was injured in yesterday's incident. Electric power was restored and the stations reopened about 4:20 p.m.
No injuries were reported involving the disabled train, Mrs. Johnson said.
"A runaway train is the worst thing that could happen," Mrs. Johnson said. "An incident of this nature is extremely rare."
Metro officials last week told the D.C. Council they used a train full of passengers as a "probe" to check the severity of a tunnel fire near the Foggy Bottom station on April 20.
On Monday, the Metro board of directors ordered Metro to change its policy so that trains must now stop whenever there is a report of a fire or other hazard. It also put an end to the practice of letting train operators put out fires.
The change was prompted by a report in The Washington Times on Sunday that two Metro board members Decatur Trotter of Prince George's County, Md., and D.C. Council member Jim Graham demanded that Metro revise its procedures immediately.
Metro employees said that recovering a disabled train with a working one is a common practice and that the train operator, who failed to properly couple the two trains together, should have known what she was doing.
The employees said the usual procedure is to couple the trains together, then disconnect the brakes on the disabled train so that it can be pushed to the next station. But in this incident, the trains were never coupled properly. When the brakes were disconnected, the disabled train, which was on a slope, started rolling without brakes and power.
"The operator [on the disabled train] had no controls, and the train was running free," said a Metro employee.
The disabled train had reached a speed of 5 mph before the train operator left his cab, ran through the train and manually began setting the brakes. The brakes can be set manually in compartments under some seats inside the subway cars. Because the brakes had been disconnected, the train had no automatic controls, which would have made it difficult to stop.
"The ATP [train controls], the signals, nothing would have affected it," an employee familiar with the procedure said. "It could have been a real nightmare."


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